Edward Gregson: The Plantagenets
Composed for the 1973 National Brass Band Championships, Edward Gregson’s The Plantagenets has stood the test of time in the banding world. Subtitled ‘A Symphonic Study for Brass Band’ The Plantagenets is still to this day one of Gregson’s most ambitious symphonic-inspired works. Unlike many of his other works that are set as test pieces, The Plantagenets makes atmosphere and harmonic structure the priority of the work.
The work is not intended to be programme music like many would imagine, instead it’s a collection of moods and feelings of a particular age. As the name suggests, the 12th century House of Plantagenet is the base inspiration for the piece. Gregson goes the extra mile in his programme notes to emphasise that the work is not intended to be programmatic:
“To many it conjures up an Age of Chivalry and this is represented by fanfare motifs which occur throughout the work in varied form. The opening thematic figure, rising through the band in thirds, and followed by the fanfares, is important as nearly all the subsequent material is based upon it.
Unlike some of his other much more technical works for brass band such as Partita (1971), The Plantagenets boasts harmonic complexity, textural dominance, rhythmic and melodic variety and an ambitious structural foundation. Gregson’s notes for the work sum up the factors that go in to each section to create the desired mood:
“There follows two themes, the second of which is lyrical in style, and introduced by ‘tutti’ horns. In the slow middle section a new theme is introduced by a solo horn (and it recurs on cornet and euphonium in canon) and is developed at some length.
A lively fugato scherzino, however, leads to a recapitulation of the opening section music, and the work ends with a maestoso statement of the slow movement theme; a final reference to the fanfares ends the work.”
Opening from the bottom of the band moving upwards, this theme in thirds is the basis of The Plantagenets. The upper band reply to the scale with a syncopated fanfare, which Gregson has likened to acts of chivalry and the likes from the 12th century. This bold and majestic opening returns in many different forms throughout the work.
An off-beat pulse is established in the bottom band as the upper band fly through a new motif based on semiquaver movement. The band unite for a statement bar, and then the middle of the band take over with the melodic material. Fast moving demisemiquavers are heard in the cornets with the rest of the band accentuating the pulse below. All of these motifs are based on fanfares which adds to the style and drive of this movement.
A descending scale falls through the band from top to bottom before the next section begins. The horns play a more lyrical theme which the cornets then play, but this time much louder and bombastic with the help from percussion and the bottom of the band.
This all leads to a cadenza section which shows off various solo parts. From solo horn to principal cornet the cadenza emphasises the opening fanfare theme. The opening fanfares are heard once again, only this time they are higher in the register to create a sense of uneasiness within the music.
The next section is marked Andante affetuoso, and is the slowest section of The Plantagenets. The euphonium plays a solemn solo, which is then resonated in a cornet solo. The dynamic begins to grow within and the mood becomes much more ominous. This all keeps building until the first big climax where the top cornets are on high Cs, and the band unite to play ff.
Another cornet solo is heard, but this time the euphonium joins the soloist and the two play a duet together. The opening phrase in thirds rips through the band again, with the upper band replying with a variation of the main fanfare theme. This leads us into the next section marked Vivace.
A lively fugue is lead by cornet, flugel and euphonium, with other instruments joining in to create a canon of music. The peppy 6/8 time signature adds to the style of this section, giving us something we’ve not heard heard before in the work. The trombones and soprano cornet are featured heavily in this section, with lots of the texture here being thin.
The music quickly turns heavy in texture once more as another variation of the opening theme is led by the solo cornets. The syncopated rhythms used by Gregson throughout return and aid in building the tension throughout the band. This leads to a bold tremolo section that paves the way for the finale section.
A final proclamation of the themes run throughout all sections of the band creating another fugue-like section. The band then unite for the final fanfares before the bottom end of the band and the percussion end The Plantagenets in a bold style.
Edward Gregson’s The Plantagenets is a complex but effective work for brass band that is still popular in band rooms today. As well as being a favoured concert piece for top bands, The Plantagenets is also used as a test piece and was last used for the Second Section Regional Contest in 2013. It has the workings of a great piece of music, from the series of mood pictures to the technical prowess and earth-shattering dynamic contrasts, The Plantagenets is certainly a test worth taking.